I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Famous actors love a good side hustle. Tom Hanks wrote an entire book about typewriters, Steve Martin would rather talk about his banjo than his legendary comedy career, Lakeith Stanfield raps, and Joe Pesci — well, Joe Pesci also raps. More accurately, Pesci sings, and has released three albums over the years of what can broadly be described as “lounge-singer music” (four, if you count the 2003 jazz album he recorded as “Joe Doggs”). Still, the crown jewel of these recordings is arguably the 1998 single “Wise Guy,” Pesci’s never-repeated attempt at channeling his brash onscreen persona into rap music.
As the legend goes, Joseph Frank Pesci’s rise to fame began when Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro called the actor up one fateful night in 1979, plucking him from relative obscurity for a supporting role in Raging Bull, which would earn him the first of three Oscar nominations. By the time Pesci’s acting career took off, though, he had already made an outsize impact on the world of popular music. In 1959, a young Joe Pesci helped give rise to the Four Seasons when he introduced two acquaintances, Frankie Valli and Tommy DeVito, to Bob Gaudio, who went on to write many of the group’s hit songs. Lest their meteoric rise overshadow his own, in 1968, Pesci released his debut album, a collection of pop covers with the not-inaccurate title, Little Joe Sure Can Sing!
Like all great pop stars, Pesci knew when to take his foot off the gas and waited 30 long years before dropping his sophomore LP, Vincent LaGuardia Gambini Sings Just for You. Though loosely pitched as a concept album sung from the perspective of Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny — a wisecracking personal-injury lawyer with a mostly healthy relationship to his fiancée (Marisa Tomei) — the actual songs here only sporadically adhere to the theme. Most glaringly, “Wise Guy” does away with the Vinny Gambini concept entirely, instead presenting Pesci as a cartoonish riff on his mobster characters from GoodFellas and Casino — volatile, prone to violence, and not exactly respectful of women. As it turns out, when given a mic and a beat, Pesci’s more likely to rhyme about committing acts of violence than defending his cousin in a court of law.
As the song’s funky instrumental — lifted wholesale from Blondie’s “Rapture” — kicks in, Pesci repeatedly invokes what I can only presume to be a wiseguy mantra: “It’s the bitches that’ll get yas.” Try as you might, his particular pronunciation of the phrase (conjoining “get yas” with a “ch” sound) will rattle around in your brain for days on end, occasionally escaping your mouth as you mindlessly clean your apartment for the thousandth time since COVID-19 began. In the song’s (hard-to-find) video, Pesci raps deadpan into the camera between shots of him hopping out of cars, throwing his arms around younger women, and enjoying Champagne at a table with his crew. When it gets to the song’s chorus, the video cuts to two women dancing and singing an interpolation of the theme song from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (“Lovely day in the neighborhood / For a drive-by”) while Pesci goes about his business, once again muttering to himself, “It’s the bitches that’ll get yas.”
Twenty-two years removed from its release, the very existence of “Wise Guy” still prompts a simple question: Why? Why, at the peak of his powers — the same year he commanded a reported $3 million salary for Lethal Weapon 4 — did Joe Pesci feel the need to dip his toes into the rap game? Music seems to have been the man’s first and purest love, so it makes sense that he would try to attract new listeners by conceptually hitching an album to his more popular work in film. But why not stick to his bread and butter of covering beloved pop songs? Further, “Wise Guy” begs inquiry into Pesci’s level of rap fandom. If anything, his stilted rhyme schemes and chosen instrumental suggest a preference for an earlier era of hip-hop, but whose music did he study to hone his craft? And what did he think of the classic albums from the likes of Jay-Z, DMX, and Lauryn Hill that came out the same year as “Wise Guy”? If Pesci’s begrudging, all-but-silent participation in The Irishman’s press tour is any indication, then these long-lingering questions may remain — to our collective frustration — unanswered.
To jump to the logical conclusion, maybe Joe Pesci just does what he wants and would otherwise like to be left alone. After all, almost anyone else would have been precious about the tough-guy image he established in movies like GoodFellas and Raging Bull; instead, Pesci spent the early ’90s letting a prepubescent Macaulay Culkin torture him onscreen with blowtorches and BB guns. (Attribute that to the paychecks if you want, but don’t try to tell me Pesci doesn’t sell it.) Similarly, he could’ve kept churning out movies and printing money as long as he wanted but instead mostly retired from acting in 1999, resurfacing last year to give arguably the best performance in The Irishman. Of course, that Oscar-nominated turn only represented one-half of a one-two punch, as 2019 also marked Pesci’s return to music with the album Pesci … Still Singing. There’s not a rap in sight, but at least it brought us the Joe Pesci–Adam Levine duet of “My Cherie Amour” that we never could have known to ask for.